Social Impact Assessment


Social Impact Assessment

Social Impact Assessment includes the processes of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions (policies, programs, plans, projects) and any social change processes invoked by those interventions. Its primary purpose is to bring about a more sustainable and equitable biophysical and human environment.

SIA is best understood as an umbrella or overarching framework that embodies the evaluation of all impacts on humans and on all the ways in which people and communities interact with their socio-cultural, economic and biophysical surroundings. SIA thus has strong links with a wide range of specialist sub-fields involved in the assessment of areas such as: aesthetic impacts (landscape analysis); archaeological and cultural heritage impacts (both tangible and non-tangible); community impacts; cultural impacts; demographic impacts; development impacts; economic and fiscal impacts; gender impacts; health and mental health impacts; impacts on indigenous rights; infrastructural impacts, institutional impacts; leisure and tourism impacts; political impacts (human rights, governance, democratisation etc); poverty; psychological impacts; resource issues (access and ownership of resources); impacts on social and human capital; and other impacts on societies. As such, comprehensive SIA cannot normally be undertaken by a single person, but requires a team approach.

SIA comprises most of the following activities. It:

  • participates in the environmental design of the planned intervention;
  • identifies interested and affected peoples;
  • facilitates and coordinates the participation of stakeholders;
  • documents and analyses the local historical setting of the planned intervention so as to be able to interpret responses to the intervention, and to assess cumulative impacts;
  • collects baseline data (social profiling) to allow evaluation and audit of the impact assessment process and the planned intervention itself;
  • gives a rich picture of the local cultural context, and develops an understanding of local community values, particularly how they relate to the planned intervention;
  • identifies and describes the activities which are likely to cause impacts (scoping);
  • predicts (or analyses) likely impacts and how different stakeholders are likely to respond;
  • assists evaluating and selecting alternatives (including a no development option);
  • assists in site selection;
  • recommends mitigation measures;

The objective of SIA is to ensure that development maximises its benefits and minimises its costs, especially those costs borne by people (including those in other places and in the future). Costs and benefits may not be measurable or quantifiable and are often not adequately taken into account by decision-makers, regulatory authorities and developers. By identifying impacts in advance:

(1) better decisions can be made about which interventions should proceed and how they should proceed; and

(2) mitigation measures can be implemented to minimise the harm and maximise the benefits from a specific planned intervention or related activity.

An important feature of SIA is the professional value system held by its practitioners. In addition to a commitment to sustainability and to scientific integrity, such a value system includes an ethic that advocates openness and accountability, fairness and equity, and defends human rights. The role of SIA goes far beyond the ex-ante (in advance) prediction of adverse impacts and the determination of who wins and who loses. SIA also encompasses: empowerment of local people; enhancement of the position of women, minority groups and other disadvantaged or marginalised members of society; development of capacity building; alleviation of all forms of dependency; increase in equity; and a focus on poverty reduction.

SIA complements the economic and technical models that characterise the thinking of many development professionals and agencies. SIA can be undertaken in different contexts and for different purposes. This creates difficulties in defining or evaluating it. The nature of an SIA done on behalf of a multinational corporation as part of that company’s internal procedures may be very different to an SIA undertaken by a consultant in compliance with regulatory or funding agency requirements, or an SIA undertaken by a development agency interested in ensuring best value for their country’s development assistance. These, in turn, may be very different to an SIA undertaken by staff or students at a local university on behalf of the local community, or an SIA undertaken by the local community itself. Each of these applications of SIA is worthwhile, and none should pretend to be the definitive statement. Evaluation of an SIA needs to consider its intended purpose.

Some conceptualisations of SIA are related to protecting individual property rights, with clear statements of adverse impacts required to ensure that individual rights are not transgressed. Where these rights are violated, SIA could be seen as contributing to mitigation and compensation mechanisms. In these situations, SIA tends to concentrate on the negative impacts. In other contexts, however, particularly in developing countries, there should be less emphasis on the negative impacts on small groups of individuals or on individual property rights. Rather, there should be greater concern with maximising social utility and development potential, while ensuring that such development is generally acceptable to the community, equitable and sustainable.

SIA should also focus on reconstruction of livelihoods. The improvement of social wellbeing of the wider community should be explicitly recognised as an objective of planned interventions, and as such should be an indicator considered by any form of assessment. However, awareness of the differential distribution of impacts among different groups in society, and particularly the impact burden experienced by vulnerable groups in the community should always be of prime concern.

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